The Fever (17 June 2014) by Megan Abbott

186560363 out of 5 stars

I waited several days after racing through the compulsive novel The Fever before writing a review. However, after some deliberation, I still am unsure of my feelings about this book. First of all, The Fever deals with similar issues to some of Megan Abbott’s previous novels, such as Dare Me and The End of Everything. The novel is focused on the world of teenage girls, the sexual awakening, the savagery, the way everything is so, so, intense and important, and, well, feverish. Like Dare Me before it, The Fever is a novel which dispels any Victorian ideas society might harbor about women being the “gentler” sex. Abbott instead explores the vicious mystery of young women’s emotions, and the way in which their burgeoning desires are all the more powerful and dangerous because it they are not fully understood.  While in Dare Me, Abbott explored the world of high school cheerleading, and in The End of Everything, the disappearance of the narrator’s childhood friend, The Fever is a more difficult novel to categorize.

The premise of the novel is that Deenie, our main character, witnesses her best friend Lise have a seizure in class. Lise is quickly carted off to the hospital, but her condition worsens. In the midst of the chaos created by this incident, other girls in Deenie’s group of friends begin to exhibit strange symptoms of this “fever.” No one knows what causes it, and as multiple explanations are put forward, the reader becomes desperately interested to find out what is really going on.  From the beginning, The Fever is an addictive read. Abbott’s unique writing style is vivid and impressionistic; her sentences are jam-packed with colors, textures, and smells evoking a dreamlike adolescence. Abbott’s writing is a pleasure to read, but also, at times, intrusive and confusing. Abbott’s style is a key element of the impact of the story, but at times, it seems like too much of a good thing.

And this leads me to another issue, which is that in The Fever, not a whole lot happens for much of the story.  After Lise’s seizure, the whole school goes into a complete uproar in a way that I found a little unbelievable. The amount of shock expressed by the teachers and students seems disproportionate to the incident, and almost more like a reaction I would expect if there had been a school shooting. The emotional repercussions of Lise’s seizure are described in chapter after chapter. Abbott hints that something more nefarious that a straightforward seizure disorder is the cause of Lise’s sickness, but the characters in the novel speculate about what that might be ad infinitum and for a while, nothing else seems  to happen.  So while I was very interested to discover what was really going on, at the same time, the lack of action in the story perplexed me.

I began to wonder what Abbott was trying to accomplish in this novel…was it actually a mystery thriller? a coming of age story? a story about the evils of pollution? or a cautionary tale about teenage sex? Near the end of the novel, the action suddenly picks up, and in short order, a brand new twist is introduced that explains the mystery illness. I felt a bit disappointed with the direction that the novel ended up taking. There were also some ideas hinted at, the idea that Deenie was somehow the center of things, and that something traumatic might have happened to her as well, that I did not feel were believably or clearly explained.

In the end, I find it difficult to categorize The Fever. I have seen it billed as both a horror and an adult novel. To me, it felt more like a young adult novel, and while it was gripping and suspenseful, I would not categorize it as horror. In the final analysis, The Fever reminded me of novels such as The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. The thing is, I’m not sure that it added anything of substance to that genre. While The Fever was a gripping read, for me, it didn’t deliver the goods, or leave me with any sense of having learned something new about what it is like to be a young woman today. What made The Fever most worthwhile was Abbott’s amazing imagery, which I think will stay with me long after the twists of the plot fade away.

I received an advance review copy of The Fever from the publisher through NetGalley.

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